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"Old-Growth Finds the New World"

The New York Times, 2007


The house that Robin Howe and her husband, Andy Grossman, share in Bridgehampton, N.Y., is only a year old, but their living room floor dates back a century. Made of wide-plank teak, the floorboards have "a lived-in feel that is attractive and old and gentle on the feet," said Ms. Howe, a fashiondesigner.


Before the boards were in Ms. Howe's living room they were in the McCloud, Calif., warehouse of TerraMai, a company that sells so-called "reclaimed" wood from around the world; before that, they were the floors and walls of a factory, probably near the Burmese border in Thailand, 8,000 miles from Long Island.


As Southeast Asia continues to modernize, many teak-wood homes and buildings like that factory are being torn down and replaced with Western-style brick or concrete ones. While this architectural turnover has been going on for decades, in recent years American companies like TerraMai have increasingly been buying up the old-growth teak wood and selling it to homeowners like Ms. Howe, which has raised some concerns among preservationists.


"In the last three years, our sales of reclaimed teak have tripled," said Erika Carpenter, TerraMai's co-founder. "People are becoming aware, appreciating the material and designing their projects aroundit."


In 2006, the company disassembled 12 structures in Southeast Asia, and this year Ms. Carpenter expects to tear down about 20. The wood, which sells in the United States for between $16.50 a square foot and $30 a board foot — slightly more than new teak from the same region would cost — is re-milled and used tomake flooring, decking, countertops, staircases and cabinetry, among other things. (For teak flooring, the cost is about three times that of a typical oak floor.)


Global Surroundings, a furnishings manufacturer near Phoenix, has had similar success with its Rusteaka and ChicTeak lines of outdoor furniture made from Indonesian homes. According to J. L. Jackson, the company's founder, Global Surroundings imported six shipping containers of vintage teak furniture in 2006 and will double that number this year.


Ms. Jackson said she initially had difficulty convincing retailers to stock her tables and chairs, but an increased interest in the environmental benefits of recycled resources has helped spark sales, as has the popularity of outdoor furniture, for which old teak is well suited. Then there's the matter of character. "You have to buy into it, and understand that this is a great story when you're sitting around your coffee table," she said.


Old teak lumber seems to hold much the same appeal for many Americans. "They've definitely had previous lives," Ms. Howe said of her floorboards. "There's a history in them that may be hundreds of years old, and I've become a part of that."


Not everyone, though, is happy to see Westerners like Ms. Howe claiming a place in that history.


Tanet Charoenmuang, the vice president of the Urban Development Institute Foundation in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which advocates for historical preservation in the rapidly modernizing city, is worried that his country is slowly losing its identity, as old teak villas, docks, hotels, tobacco barns and granaries vanish. "Houses are sold one after another afteranother, and, finally, all gone," Dr. Tanet said. "Finally, the culture will be gone, too."


Although Ms. Carpenter, like other importers of reclaimed wood, says that she only purchases buildings that were going to be demolished anyway, or are already for sale, Dr. Tanet believes the money offered by these dealers inevitably encourages teardowns. "At first, someone may have never thought of selling" a home, he said, but the financial incentive, combined with the growing popularity of Western-style brick and concrete houses with modern conveniences like air-conditioning, has spurred the selling off of teak. The result, Dr. Tanet said, is that "the wooden culture gives way to the concrete."


Nonetheless, Jeffrey Hayward, an auditor for the Rainforest Alliance conservation organization, who lived on the island of Java in Indonesia for six years, sees some benefit in the demand for vintage teak, in that it promotes reuse. "If there was no market for recycled teak," said Mr. Hayward, who witnessed a similar selling off on Java, "it would basically end up as waste."


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Read the full article at The New York Times' website.